by Higerta Gjergji

Indigenous communities in Sarayaku, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, have been opposing oil exploration in their territory for decades. In 1996, the Argentine company Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC) obtained a contract with the state oil company Petroecuador. The CGC, to explore oil in the area used pentolite, a high-potential explosive used in military warheads and industry, is described as “very sensitive to heat and shock,” leaving them buried in indigenous territory.

Sarayaku took the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in 2002, and it condemned Ecuador for failing to consult the community before authorizing oil exploration. The ruling ordered Ecuador to remove the explosives and consult Sarayaku on any future oil project. Despite this legal victory, the explosives left by the oil company remain scattered in the territory of Sarayaku, threatening their safety and blocking access to their land. Despite apologies and compensation paid by the Ecuadorian government in 2013, the situation has not improved and the community continues to fight for the removal of explosives and respect for their rights.

The presence of explosives has radically changed the daily lives of the people of Sarayaku, threatening their traditional activities such as hunting and fishing and limiting their freedom of movement in their own land. In addition, the presence of the CGC has become a source of conflict between neighboring indigenous communities, who wanted to accept the offers of the oil company to gain access to the area – Jatún Molino, Pacayaku, Canelos and Shaimi -. At one point the members of Jatún Molino shot at the Sarayaku on the Bobonaza River. And after failing to convince them to sell their land in 2003, the Canelos and the Pacayacu blocked the Sarayaku passage through their territory. Later that year, the Canelos attacked the Sarayaku. “For sister communities, we became the subversives – the people against development” says Patricia Gualinga, 53 years old.

Their struggle is about more than just the defense of their territory, but also the protection of the environment and the indigenous cosmovision, which views nature as a sacred and conscious being. In fact, in 2008 the community helped give Ecuador’s forests, rivers and air legal rights similar to those granted to humans. The country became the first in the world to incorporate a charter of rights for nature into its constitution.

The explosives remain hidden in Sarayaku territory more than a decade after the ruling, and the Ecuadorian government has yet to consult the community about any oil projects. The community fears that explosives can explode at any time and threaten their health, lifestyle and environment. In January 2024, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador gave the government six months to develop a plan for the removal of explosives and to consult Sarayaku about future oil projects. The community remains doubtful about the government’s compliance with the ruling and threatens to take further legal action if necessary.

On April 8, the Ministry of Women and Human Rights of Ecuador finally met with representatives of the Sarayaku Community to discuss the issue of explosives abandoned in their territory. An important step forward, after years of silence and failure to comply with the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. However, the lawyer Mario Melo, representing the Community since 2002, calls for caution. “Since 2012, we have already had meetings with the ministry, but they were all fruitless”, he says. “Our feeling is that the state is not serious about this issue.”

Melo’s distrust is understandable. Since 2012, the year of the historic IACHR ruling that condemned Ecuador for violating Sarayaku’s rights, the Government has not yet taken concrete steps. “Ecuador gives priority to the oil industry over the rights of its citizens” , says Melo. “Transnational companies act as partners of the state.” Melo says that “negligence” over explosives in Sarayaku is ultimately a state choice. “If the state cedes to Sarayaku, other indigenous peoples may be motivated to demand the closure of oil operations in their territories.”

On the cover photo, Sarayaku (Ecuador): view of a house in the forest ©Iviaggidimanuel/